Review: “Hot Milk” by Deborah Levy

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Hot Milk

By Deborah Levy

(Man Booker Shortlist 2016)

 

“’Sofia is a waitress, for the time being,’ my father said in Greek.
I am other things, too.
I have a first-class degree and a master’s.
I am pulsating with shifting sexualities.
I am sex on tanned legs in suede platform sandals.
I am urban and educated and currently godless.”

hot milk

25-year-old Sofia is an anthropologist working in an artisan café. Her mother Rose has been suffering with unidentifiable leg problems for many years, and Sofia has become her carer. Theirs is a tense relationship. Both Sofia and Rose have just arrived on the Spanish coast to see an expensive doctor.

In the Spanish sunshine, on a jellyfish infested beach, Sofia is stung in more ways than one. The novel is incredibly sensual: The tang of sweat on a body, the sting of a jellyfish on the skin. Desire is tangible; an excuse to be a wilful and a reason to surrender.

“The Kiss. We don’t talk about it but it’s there in the coconut ice cream we are making together. It’s there in the space between us as Ingrid scrapes the seeds from a vanilla pod with her penknife. It’s lurking in the long eyelids and the egg yolks and cream and it’s written in blue silken thread with the needle that is Ingrid’s mind.”

The language is mesmerizing. The imagery Levy uses is unusual and enigmatic, as are her characters.

Everyone we encounter is an enigma. As an anthropologist, Sofia cannot help but be fascinated by them. Her subtle observation of others demystifies and beatifies these people, while respecting that full understanding is not always possible or necessary. It is also in this way that Sofia reaches revelations of her own.

“Your boundaries are made from sand, Sofia”


Title: Hot Milk
Author: Deborah Levy
ISBN: 9780241968031
Publisher: Penguin Books Ltd
Click to buy.

Book Review: “House of Names” by Colm Toibin

House of Names

By Colm Tόibίn

house of names

I received an ARC of this title from NetGalley and Viking.

First things first: how do you say his name? I looked it up: CULL-um Toe-BEAN.

Tόibίn has been around for a good while and written several notable titles, including Man Booker Shortlisted titles and a film adaptation of Brooklyn in 2015. But I have yet to sample his work. Thankfully, I have now broken that trend, with his newest release: House of Names.

King Agamemnon makes a horrific choice: the day she was to be married, Agamemnon has his daughter sacrificed. It is brutal and shocking. It is the will of the Gods. It is only this act that will bring him favour in the Trojan War. Or so he believes. This brutal act leaves a legacy of grief and treachery for his wife, Clytemnestra and they’re surviving children, Orestes and Electra.

As a student and lover of the classics, I found it fascinating. House of Names is based on Greek myths that I am not particularly familiar with, so I don’t know how true it is to historical sources, but given Tόibίn’s calibre, I think we can safely assume that a fair amount of research went into it. Something I really appreciated and enjoyed while reading this novel, was the considered effort to create an ancient – and therefore timeless – narrative. The writing style reminded me of that which we find in existing ancient texts, such as Livy.

It is a style that shuns embellishment and uses very little description. Yes, landscapes have their dimensions and facets – be they open fields or cold stone prison cells. And yes, characters have their thoughts and actions – be they private and murderous or steadfast and brave. But Tόibίn finds more than that unnecessary. The result is an action driven narrative, governed by its restrained descriptive style. My imagination thrived on this starvation of description, and when I think back to some of the action scenes in the book, vivid images instantly appear inside my mind.

While this is a story driven by soul-consuming emotion, Tόibίn’s decision to heavily restrain his character’s voices compresses and represses these violent emotions, emulating the experience of his characters. Unfortunately, while I found the style overall to be effective, it was the restraint that prevented me from truly connecting with the characters. I felt removed from them. Therefore, even when a first person narrative was being used, I could only observe and not empathise with them.

Perhaps that was intentional on the part of Tόibίn; a decision made as part of his endeavour to recall this ancient myth of murder, betrayal and power.


Book Title: House of Names

Author: Colm Toibin

ISBN: 9780241257685 (HB)

Buy it here.


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Book Review: “The Cairo Pulse” by B.B. Kindred

The Cairo Pulse

by B.B. Kindred

I received a reading copy from NetGalley and Troubador Publishing Ltd in exchange for an honest review.

“Throughout recorded history there’d been both religions and individuals who believed that all human experience existed in a cosmic reservoir that could potentially be accessed; the Buddhists with their Akashic Records, Carl Jung and the Collective Unconscious, Rupert Sheldrake’s Morphic Resonance.”

I am fascinated by this concept.

Haven’t we all experienced those flashes of lucidity that arrive-depart with lightning speed and infinite grace? I know I have. Fleeting moments that put the world on pause for a few nanoseconds. Everything is still and perfect and knowable. There is something more, something open and natural. A whole galaxy floats before you with its beauty and magnitude. A sense of sublime perspective. And then it’s gone.

“Nothing was lost on me, not the pitching waves or rustling grass, the pine and salty air, the caramel sand that nuzzled my feet, the skin pleasing breeze, the mingling scents of my following companions. Everything was delicious and captivating, no ripples of dislocation or question. A head untenanted by thought and memory, filled with only knowing.”

What if we learnt to reach that state and harness its potential? What might become of us, then?

The earth emits electromagnetic energy. This is a scientific fact. Humans are conductors of electricity and our brains emit electromagnetic waves. These too are facts. It does not seem to me so entirely far-fetched that our brains might one day be able to harness that energy. That we will become attuned to the natural electromagnetism of this universe. What precisely would come from such an evolution is up for debate and B.B. Kindred’s characters are exploring just that.

This is not a new idea; many grasp at this same notion. Blockbuster films like The Matrix and Lucy grew from the same place as B.B. Kindred. Both films are really quite weird, objectively. (And their endings suck, subjectively.)

Often the problem with this kind of exploration is maintaining a coherent story while also successfully conveying a wildly abstract theory. This novel isn’t exactly a sci-fi, but that’s probably where you’d find it in a bookshop. (N.B. It’s currently only available as an eBook, so don’t actually go looking!) It reminds me of titles like Nod by Adrian Barnes and Eleanor by Jason Gurley – both of which I read last year and both of which defy easy genre classification. They are playing with huge ideas, possibilities and ways of thinking and being. It is easy for the ideas to take over the story. And that’s not necessarily a bad thing, but it’s better to know that going in. In regards to The Cairo Pulse, it’s success as a story is mixed. The best moments in the novel are those that venture into cosmic experience and the comedown that follows. Wonderment hit down by normality, the flippancy and self-awareness of it all.

 “I woke feeling irritated by the sharpness of my thoughts”

Similar Titles:

Nod by Adrian Barnes

The Girl with All the Gifts by M.R. Carey

Eleanor by Jason Gurley

Nausea by Jean-Paul Sartre

Smoke by Dan Vyleta

Title: The Cairo Pulse

Author: B.B. Kindred

ISBN: 9781788031974

Only available as eBook.

Buy it here.

Book Review: “On Tyranny” by Timothy Snyder

On Tyranny: Twenty Lessons from the Twentieth Century

by Timothy Snyder

on tyranny

A short book deserves a short review.

Concise, punchy and imperative, this world of ours needs people who think, write and do as Timothy Snyder does. This book should be required reading for anyone who believes in democracy. But in particular, it is an urgent message for the young and apathetic voters of not just this country, but every country. Despite its focus on Trump’s America, this is a message for all. It is a call to action and a pointed reminder that oppression and tyranny is a cornerstone of our global history. We need not look far to find it. It is closer to us than we realise, ensconced in our “safe” democracy. Do not take choice for granted. Do not take your voice for granted. Do not take your right to vote for granted.

Register to vote now.


Title: On Tyranny: Twenty Lessons from the Twentieth Century

Author: Timothy Snyder

ISBN: 9781847924889

Publisher: Bodley Head, Penguin Random House

Buy it here.

Book Review: “A Rising Man” by Abir Mukherjee

A Rising Man

by Abir Mukherjee

rising man

Calcutta, 1919. The rule of the British is starting to crumble. Dissenters both violent and peaceful are rallying but the Imperial Police Force and the Lieutenant-Governor are having none of it. Tighter restrictions are being placed upon the native Indians, the Bengalis are becoming “too smart for their own good” and political dissension is now fuelled with passion and education – a dangerous mix (p380). Captain Sam Wyndham, a veteran of the Great War has just arrived in the humid, febrile city, when a Burra Sahib is found with his throat cut. Believed to be the work of terrorists, Wyndham is put in charge of the investigation, but finds himself haplessly ignorant of the local customs. At the mercy of bureaucracy and corruption, Wyndham finds hypocrisy everywhere and before long, Wyndham finds himself being lead down the primrose path.

This is the first instalment of what Mukherjee hopes to be an enduring series, featuring Captain Wyndham and Sergeant “Surrender-Not” Banerjee. I received a proof of the second instalment (“A Necessary Evil”) and gave it away to a colleague before reading “A Rising Man”. I will now be hurrying said colleague to finish it so I can take it back and add it to my TBR pile! I will happily consume another of Mukherjee’s thrillers.

While I am not generally a big reader of crime/thrillers, I have recently developed a penchant for the historical variety (“Ashes of London” by Andrew Taylor). This subgenre offers much in the way of world-building and is a delicious way to swallow nuggets of history. Mukherjee’s novel succeeds on both counts. The city is vibrant, smelly and sticky. And I mean that in a good way. The political landscape is a work in progress. With this first novel of the series, Mukherjee paints with a broad brush. Outlines of buildings, systems of government and caste are successfully scattered throughout the narrative in order to provide backdrop, but little detail is gone into. I hope very much the politics of Imperial India will develop as further publications are released.

The narrative itself moves with great pace and makes for an incredibly readable book.  The characters, again, are a work in progress. But, what is clear is that there is respect for the nuances of character-building and Mukherjee does not rush the process unnecessarily. Our Captain is not without flaws, and while I occasionally cringed at his somewhat outdated phrasing with respect to women in particular, I can certainly respect the efforts made to create a man and not simply a character.

All in all, a good solid beginning to a new historical series that I will happily continue to read.

Book Review: “Reunion” by Fred Uhlman

“Reunion” by Fred Uhlman

reunion

In the afterword to this novel, Rachel Seiffert’s phrase puts it perfectly: “His restraint is formidable”. Sometimes the most difficult thing for a writer to achieve is restraint, the tendency to embellish being too difficult to resist. Uhlman’s narrative is stripped back, leaving only what is essential. I found reading this very short novel to be an unusual challenge, simply because of its brevity. I had to deliberately slow my reading, so as not to skim past something important. It is imperative you pay attention to every word, or you’ll miss something delicate and urgent.

This book is about friendship, the essence of what it is to find another person with whom you can share, with whom you feel natural. And the fragile state of adolescence, on the brink of adulthood, but still so much the child.

“Just as I took it for granted that it was dulce et decorum pro Germania mori, so I would have agreed that to die pro amico was dulce et decorum too. Between the ages of sixteen and eighteen boys sometimes combine a naïve innocence, a radiant purity of body and mind, with a passionate urge to absolute and selfless devotion. The phase usually only lasts a short time, but because of its intensity and uniqueness it remains one of life’s most precious experiences.” p13

This is the state in which we join two sixteen-year-old boys. Full of potential, minds to be readily moulded… or taken advantage of.

A thin, at times imperceptible veil floats above Hans and Konradin’s friendship. Konradin’s parents shake hands with Hitler in a photo. Herr Pompetzski delivers a lesson on the “dark powers” at work everywhere. A schoolboy tells Hans to “go back to Palestine”.

This book can be read in a matter of hours. Remarkably swift, delicate and poetic, Uhlman’s style reminds me an equally short novel: A Whole Life by Robert Seethaler. It is, like Ulhman, Seethaler’s ability to hold back that makes the narrative so powerful. They refuse to dress up a story that can and will speak for itself, with its humble words and noble human intention.

Book Review: “My Name is Lucy Barton” By Elizabeth Strout

“My Name is Lucy Barton” by Elizabeth Strout

lucy barton

 My Name is Lucy Barton is an honest account of family and a true representation of how life and love can be so complicated and yet so simple. Strout’s tone is refreshing and unsentimental, and for me, that is both its strength and its weakness. I struggled to feel invested in what is essentially brief and largely uneventful. Strout’s strength, however, is creating an environment in which empathy is eminently possible.

“Lonely was the first flavour I hast tasted in my life, and it was always there, hidden inside the crevices of my mouth, remind me.” p41-2

“I have since been friends with many men and women and they say the same thing: Always that telling detail. What I mean is, this is not just a woman’s story. It’s what happens to a lot of us, if we are lucky enough to hear that detail and pay attention to it.” p28

The charm of this novel is in its little glimpses of human tenderness. Lucy shares those feelings we all have but are often too embarrassed or ashamed to admit. Lucy and her mother do not have an easy relationship. They are real because they are normal and mundane but complicated, like all of us.

3 Reviews!

I failed to post a review during February, so have three to make up for it:

“My Name is Lucy Barton” by Elizabeth Strout

lucy barton

 My Name is Lucy Barton is an honest account of family and a true representation of how life and love can be so complicated and yet so simple. Strout’s tone is refreshing and unsentimental, and for me, that is both its strength and its weakness. I struggled to feel invested in what is essentially brief and largely uneventful. Strout’s strength, however, is creating an environment in which empathy is eminently possible.

“Lonely was the first flavour I had tasted in my life, and it was always there, hidden inside the crevices of my mouth, reminding me.” p41-2

“I have since been friends with many men and women and they say the same thing: Always that telling detail. What I mean is, this is not just a woman’s story. It’s what happens to a lot of us, if we are lucky enough to hear that detail and pay attention to it.” p28

The charm of this novel is in its little glimpses of human tenderness. Lucy shares those feelings we all have but are often too embarrassed or ashamed to admit. Lucy and her mother do not have an easy relationship. They are real because they are normal and mundane but complicated, like all of us.

“Reunion” by Fred Uhlman

reunion

In the afterword to this novel, Rachel Seiffert’s phrase puts it perfectly: “His restraint is formidable”. Sometimes the most difficult thing for a writer to achieve is restraint, the tendency to embellish being too difficult to resist. Uhlman’s narrative is stripped back, leaving only what is essential. I found reading this very short novel to be an unusual challenge, simply because of its brevity. I had to deliberately slow my reading, so as not to skim past something important. It is imperative you pay attention to every word, or you’ll miss something delicate and urgent.

This book is about friendship, the essence of what it is to find another person with whom you can share, with whom you feel natural. And the fragile state of adolescence, on the brink of adulthood, but still so much the child.

“Just as I took it for granted that it was dulce et decorum pro Germania mori, so I would have agreed that to die pro amico was dulce et decorum too. Between the ages of sixteen and eighteen boys sometimes combine a naïve innocence, a radiant purity of body and mind, with a passionate urge to absolute and selfless devotion. The phase usually only lasts a short time, but because of its intensity and uniqueness it remains one of life’s most precious experiences.” p13

This is the state in which we join two sixteen-year-old boys. Full of potential, minds to be readily moulded… or taken advantage of.

A thin, at times imperceptible veil floats above Hans and Konradin’s friendship. Konradin’s parents shake hands with Hitler in a photo. Herr Pompetzski delivers a lesson on the “dark powers” at work everywhere. A schoolboy tells Hans to “go back to Palestine”.

This book can be read in a matter of hours. Remarkably swift, delicate and poetic, Uhlman’s style reminds me an equally short novel: A Whole Life by Robert Seethaler. It is, like Ulhman, Seethaler’s ability to hold back that makes the narrative so powerful. They refuse to dress up a story that can and will speak for itself, with its humble words and noble human intention.

“A Little History of Philosophy” by Nigel Warburton

little history philosophy

Does what it says on the tin. From Socrates through to Alan Turing and Peter Singer, bitesize chapters relate the history of philosophy from its birth to present day. You couldn’t call it a full history, since it focuses primarily on Western philosophy. Nevertheless, it is a lovely introduction to philosophy for students or for anyone with an interest in the subject. These philosophical episodes also coalesce with pivotal moments of political and scientific change: Rousseau in the French Revolution, Charles Darwin’s theory of evolution, Karl Marx theorising Communism, Alan Turing cracking the Enigma code. Joining the philosophical dots through history helps to paint a picture of humanity and continued attempts to improve ourselves.

The tone of the chapters evolves as you read. Warburton is almost flippant and comedic at the start, when discussing Socrates. But this may well be a reflection of the ancient historical accounts we have access to. The erosion of time has made them into characters, rather than people. You cannot help but find Pyrrho to be an amusing character. Pyrrho was an early sceptic who believed we can know absolutely nothing. Our physical senses are likely to mislead us, so he therefore ignored them entirely.

“So, whereas most people would take the sight of a cliff edge with a sheer drop as strong evidence that it would be very foolish to keep walking forward, Pyrrho didn’t … Even the feeling of his toes curling over the cliff edge, or the senstation of tipping forward, wouldn’t have convinced him he was about to fall to the rocks below. It wasn’t even obvious to him that falling on to the rocks would be so bad for his health. How could he be absolutely sure of that?” p17

As the book moves further toward the present, the tone becomes more sincere and the questions more relevant for a modern reader. Will computers be able to achieve consciousness? Is abortion moral? Reading this book is like studying a unit called “Introduction to Philosophy,”  with lectures from a university professor (which of course they are). Warburton fulfils his role as teacher by introducing an increasingly provocative style that encourages the reader, or student, to explore and question.

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Book Review: “Ashes of London” by Andrew Taylor

Ashes of London

By Andrew Taylor

ashes-of-london

It’s 1666 and the Great Fire of London is raging, but bodies are being found that have nothing to do with the flames. The burnt landscape of 17th century London is wonderfully grimy and decadent. Through the eyes of young Whitehall clerk, James Marwood and Catherine Lovett, the disgraced daughter of a once rich Regicide, we see people from all walks of life.

The charred London landscape is made richer by plenty of well researched history into the political landscape. Charles II is still dealing with the aftermath of his father’s execution and the disaster of Oliver Cromwell’s rule. There are still those who think of Charles II as a usurper; those who still await the return of the true king – King Jesus. Such believers, known as Fifth Monarchists, were supporters of Charles I’s execution, and have all but disappeared since the fall of Cromwell. Though most were pardoned by the new King, those men considered to be instrumental in his father’s death, have been charged of treason and sentenced to death.

James Marwood’s father was lucky and escaped execution. Catherine Lovett’s father is still on the run. Now, more and more of Lovett’s friends are turning up dead. And Catherine and James’ lives are getting more and more complicated. Cat and Marwood are complete strangers to one another and their individual plots run parallel throughout the novel, almost crossing many times. By keeping them divided, their apprehension (and therefore ours) keeps mystery, confusion and foreknowledge at the edge of the frame. These sensations – like the characters – chase, run and hide from each other constantly. While Taylor’s imagery isn’t the best, his plot development is first-rate. This is a novel chock-full of action and plot twists. Together with a hearty dollop of political intrigue, you are compelled to keep turning the pages.

“Dear God, I thought, my life is haunted by these religious fools.”

 

Review: “The Tobacconist” by Robert Seethaler

The Tobacconist

By Robert Seethaler

tobacconist-3

 

The Tobacconist is Robert Seethaler’s new release, following his Man Booker Shortlisted novel, A Whole Life (2016) (click here for my review of A Whole Life). I adored A Whole Life and was very eager to get going with Seethaler’s new novel when I got wind of its publication.

Vienna is on the brink of World War II. The city and its people are still recovering from the previous war, but Hitler’s influence is spreading and a restless populace is growing evermore so. Franz Huchel, a naive teenager from the salt mines, has been sent to work as an apprentice in a tobacconist’s. Franz’s employer, Otto Trysnyek, is a veteran, having lost a leg back in the war. He lives a simple and honest life and finds an unexpected ally in his dedicated apprentice. The tobacconist shop is the social equaliser: cigarettes and cigars, newspapers and pinup girls in a private drawer; everyone has their usual order, even a certain Jewish psychologist by the name of Freud.

As “Heil Hilter!” becomes a more regular greeting around the city, the lives of Otto, Franz and Freud grow ever more challenging. By the time his apprenticeship ends, Franz will be a boy no longer. He’ll learn about friendship, love and respect in a city about to be overrun by hate and fear.

“Maybe that’s it, he thought: just stop and stand here like this and never move again. Then time would drift past you, you wouldn’t have to swim with it or struggle against it.”

Now, I’ll be honest, it’s nowhere near as good as A Whole Life. But then I have put that book on something of a pedestal, so I had a lot of expectations going in. Seethaler’s stoic yet emotive description that so captured me before makes sporadic appearances but not nearly enough, in The Tobacconist. However, the characterisation and the plot development are more reminiscent of the writing I remember. Seethaler’s success is in taking everyday people with extraordinary struggles and infusing them with quiet strength. It is the noble example his characters set that I hope will continue to make his novels worth seeking out.

Alphabetty Spaghetty Review for A Whole Life by Robert Seethaler

a-whole-life